Eldon Rathburn

Eldon Davis Rathburn CM (21 April 1916 – 31 August 2008) was a Canadian film composer who scored over 250 films during his thirty-year tenure as a staff composer at the National Film Board of Canada. Known as "the dean of Canadian film composers",[1] Rathburn composed music for documentaries, short films, as well as such feature films as Drylanders (1963), Nobody Waved Good-bye (1964), Waiting for Caroline (1969) and Who Has Seen the Wind (1977). Rathburn was the subject of a 1995 NFB documentary by Louis Hone titled Eldon Rathburn: They Shoot... He Scores.

Early life and education

Rathburn was born in the community of Queenstown, in Queens County, New Brunswick, Canada. As a child he learned to play the piano.[2] Rathburn attended Saint John High School,[3] and received a Licentiate of Music from McGill University in 1937. The following year, he won the Canadian Performing Rights Society Scholarship Competition, and began performing on the piano for local dance bands and radio broadcasts, including with Don Messer.[3] In 1945 he received a Young Artist Award for composition from the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra. His winning composition, "Symphonette," was performed by the L.A. Philharmonic under the baton of Alfred Wallenstein on 23 March 1945. In L.A. he studied with Arnold Schoenberg, who had chaired the Young Artist Award adjudication committee.[4] From 1938-39, he studied at the Toronto Conservatory of Music with Healey Willan (composition), Reginald Godden (piano), Charles Peaker (organ), and Leo Smith (harmony).[5]


Rathburn began working at the National Film Board in 1947.[6] Among the 250 films he scored was the 1977 adaptation of W.O. Mitchell's Who Has Seen the Wind.[1] He also provided the music for the NFB's Labyrinth installation at Expo 67.[7] He composed music for a number of early IMAX films.[8]

After his retirement from the NFB in 1976, Rathburn continued to compose; his work was featured at the Ottawa Chamber Music Festival.[9]

On April 14, 1999, he was invested as a Member of the Order of Canada.[5] A book on his life and work, authored by James Wright (Carleton University), will be published by the McGill-Queens Press in 2019.[10]

Rathburn died in Ottawa on 31 August 2008.[9][11]


  1. ^ a b "'Dean of Canadian film composers' dies at 92". CBC News, Sep 02, 2008
  2. ^ Harris M. Lentz III (11 August 2009). Obituaries in the Performing Arts, 2008: Film, Television, Radio, Theatre, Dance, Music, Cartoons and Pop Culture. McFarland. p. 361. ISBN 978-0-7864-5384-9.
  3. ^ a b "Dean of Canadian composers' got his start in Saint John". by Mike Mullen - September 12, 2008, Telegraph-Journal
  4. ^ James Kenneth Wright; Alan M. Gillmor (2009). Schoenberg's Chamber Music, Schoenberg's World. Pendragon Press. pp. 222–223. ISBN 978-1-57647-130-2.
  5. ^ a b "Eldon Rathburn: Biography". Composer Showcase. Canadian Music Centre. Retrieved 8 February 2016.
  6. ^ Keith Campbell MacMillan; John Beckwith (1975). Contemporary Canadian composers. Oxford University Press. p. 192.
  7. ^ "Expo 67: 50 years later still an expression of the human spirit". Montreal Gazette, June 13, 2017 , Arthur Kaptainis.
  8. ^ "Two Carleton projects take the measure of the music of Eldon Rathburn". Artsfile, By Peter Robb, November 23, 2018
  9. ^ a b Enman, Charles (2008-09-03). "'Dean' of film composers spent 30 years at NFB". Ottawa Citizen. Archived from the original on 2008-09-14. Retrieved 2008-09-04.
  10. ^ Wright, James K, They Shot, He Scored: The Music, Methods and Milieu of NFB Film Composer Eldon Rathburn (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s Press, forthcoming 2019).
  11. ^ Charles Enman. " 'Dean' of film composers spent 30 years at NFB". Ottawa Citizen, Sep 3, 2008

External links

Canon (film)

Canon is a 1964 National Film Board of Canada animated short co-directed by Norman McLaren and Grant Munro that offers a visual representation of the canon musical form through three animated segments. The soundtrack combines both a recorded classical score by Eldon Rathburn and electronic sounds produced via synthesizer. Canon received a Canadian Film Award "Diploma of Merit" in the Arts and Experimental category.

Christmas Cracker (film)

Christmas Cracker (French: Caprice de Noël) is a 1963 animated short about Christmas, co-directed by Norman McLaren, Gerald Potterton, Grant Munro and Jeff Hale. The film consists of a playful clown who presents three segments: a rendition of "Jingle Bells" in which cutout animation figures dance, a dime-store rodeo of tin toys and a story about decorating the perfect Christmas tree with a Christmas star. Between each segment the clown does a short transition. Produced by the National Film Board of Canada, this film without words garnered seven awards including the prize for Best Animated Short at the 1964 San Francisco International Film Festival and a nomination for an Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film at the 37th Academy Awards.

City of Gold (1957 film)

City of Gold is a 1957 Canadian documentary film by Colin Low and Wolf Koenig, chronicling Dawson City during the Klondike Gold Rush. The film is narrated by Pierre Berton and produced by the National Film Board of Canada.

Corral (film)

Corral is a 1954 National Film Board of Canada (NFB) short film documentary about the life of a cowboy, directed by Colin Low and produced by Tom Daly. It featured cinematography by Wolf Koenig and a musical score by Eldon Rathburn, and was produced as part of the NFB's postwar Canada Carries On series.

Death of a Legend

Death of a Legend was the first of three documentary films by Bill Mason about wolves, helping to dispel the image of wolves as "evil" and demonstrating their role in maintaining the balance of nature. Released in 1971, Death of the Legend was the first documentary to feature footage of wolves being born in the wild, and their first year of life. The film was followed two years later by Mason's feature length theatrical documentary on wolves, Cry of the Wild. Both films were produced by the National Film Board of Canada. Mason completed his third and final film on wolves, Wolf Pack, in 1974.

Awards for the film included two Golden Sheaf Awards and an Etrog Award, now known as the Genie Awards, for Best Colour Cinematography.


Drylanders is a 1963 Canadian film directed by Don Haldane from a screenplay by M. Charles Cohen. It was the National Film Board of Canada's first English-language feature film.

Fields of Sacrifice

Fields of Sacrifice is a 1964 documentary by Donald Brittain about Canadian war dead. The film visits former battlefields where over 100,000 Canadian soldiers lost their lives in World War I and World War II and examines Canadian military cemeteries and memorials from Hong Kong to Sicily.

In the Labyrinth (film)

In the Labyrinth (French: Dans le labyrinthe) was a groundbreaking multi-screen presentation at the Labyrinth pavilion at Expo 67 in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. It used 35 mm and 70 mm film projected simultaneously on multiple screens and was the precursor of today's IMAX format.The film split elements across the five screens and also combined them for a mosaic of a single image. It was hailed as a "stunning visual display" by Time magazine, which concludes: "such visual delights as Labyrinth ... suggest that cinema—the most typical of 20th century arts—has just begun to explore its boundaries and possibilities."In the Labyrinth was co-directed by Roman Kroitor, Colin Low and Hugh O'Connor and produced by the National Film Board of Canada. Kroitor left the NFB shortly after to co-found Multi-Screen Corporation, which later became IMAX Corporation.NFB animator Ryan Larkin also designed animated sequences for the film.It inspired Canadian filmmaker Norman Jewison to apply similar techniques to his film The Thomas Crown Affair.

Momentum (IMAX film)

Momentum was the first film shot and released in the IMAX HD film format, which ran at 48 frames per second, and was also one of the first films to use Ambisonic surround sound. The film was produced for the Canada pavilion at Seville Expo '92 by National Film Board of Canada, by the same creative team that made the 1986 3D IMAX film Transitions for Expo 86. The film takes viewers across Canada, demonstrating the ability of the 48 frame/s process to portray motion on the giant IMAX screen with reduced strobing.

Nahanni (film)

Nahanni is a 1962 short documentary from the National Film Board of Canada directed by Donald Wilder, following Albert Faille, an elderly explorer and prospector, down the Nahanni River, in search of a legendary gold mine. The film is scripted by William Weintraub with a musical score by Eldon Rathburn. Awards for the film included two prizes at the 1963 Canadian Film Awards as well as the award for Best Color Film Produced in 1962 at the Canadian Cinematography Awards.

Nobody Waved Good-bye

Nobody Waved Good-bye is a 1964 National Film Board of Canada production directed by Don Owen, starring Peter Kastner, Julie Biggs and Claude Rae. It was followed twenty years later by a sequel, Unfinished Business, with the same director and two lead actors.

The Family That Dwelt Apart

The Family That Dwelt Apart is a 1973 Canadian animated short based on the short story of the same name by E. B. White, about the misadventures of a family of seven who live in happy isolation on a small island in Barnetuck Bay, until word gets out that they are in distress. The film is directed by Yvon Mallette, narrated by E.B. White, and produced by Wolf Koenig for the National Film Board of Canada. The Family That Dwelt Apart received the Canadian Film Award for best animation. It was also nominated for an Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film at the 47th Academy Awards, losing to the US Claymation short Closed Mondays.

The Railrodder

The Railrodder is a 1965 short comedy film starring Buster Keaton in one of his final film roles, directed by Gerald Potterton and produced by the National Film Board of Canada (NFB). A 25-minute comedic travelogue of Canada, The Railrodder was also Keaton's final silent film, as the film contains no dialogue and all sound effects are overdubbed.

The backdrop to all of this is the Canadian countryside, as The Railrodder provides scenic views of Nova Scotia, Quebec, Ontario, the Prairies, the Rockies and the West Coast, c. 1964-65. Cities visited by Buster include Montreal, Ottawa and Vancouver.

The Rise and Fall of English Montreal

The Rise and Fall of English Montreal is a 1993 Canadian documentary film directed by William Weintraub and produced by the National Film Board of Canada in Montreal.

The film deals with exodus of English-speaking Quebecers that began in the 1960s and was accelerated by the Quebec general election, 1976.

The Romance of Transportation in Canada

The Romance of Transportation in Canada is a 1952 animated short film made by the National Film Board of Canada, as part of the postwar Canada Carries On series, offering a humorous account of the history of transportation in Canada. The film was directed by Colin Low and produced by Tom Daly. The Romance of Transportation in Canada featured animation by Wolf Koenig and Robert Verrall and was narrated by Guy Glover. Noted composer Eldon Rathburn composed the film score.

Transitions (film)

Transitions is the first full-colour 3D IMAX film, created for the Canada Pavilion at Expo 86, co-directed by Colin Low and Tony Ianzelo and produced by the National Film Board of Canada. It built upon We Are Born of Stars created for Expo '85 in Tskuba, Japan, which used anaglyph 3D. The film is also notable for the first use of stereoscopic computer animation.

Universe (1960 film)

Universe is a black-and-white short animated documentary made in 1960 by the National Film Board of Canada. It "creates on the screen a vast, awe-inspiring picture of the universe as it would appear to a voyager through space. Realistic animation takes you into far regions of space, beyond the reach of the strongest telescope, past Moon, Sun, and Milky Way into galaxies yet unfathomed."

This visualization is grounded in the nightly work of Dr. Donald MacRae, an astronomer at the David Dunlap Observatory in Richmond Hill, Ontario, a facility formerly owned and operated by the University of Toronto, Canada, and now operated by the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada. Using the technology of his era, MacRae prepares his largely manually operated equipment and then photographs, by long exposure, one star. He actually strikes an arc between iron electrodes and makes a simultaneous exposure, which he can compare to the star's spectrum to determine its movement relative to Earth.

The film was a nominee at the 33rd Academy Awards in the category of Best Documentary Short Subject in 1961.

Douglas Rain did the narration for the English version; the French version was titled Notre univers with narration by Gilles Pelletier. Eldon Rathburn composed the musical score.

Waiting for Caroline

Waiting for Caroline is a 1969 Canadian drama film directed by Ron Kelly and starring Alexandra Stewart, François Tassé, and William Needles. It was produced by the National Film Board of Canada.

Who Has Seen the Wind (1977 film)

Who Has Seen the Wind is a 1977 Canadian drama film directed by Allan King and written by Patricia Watson. The film is an adaptation of W. O. Mitchell's influential novel Who Has Seen the Wind. It was the first narrative feature film ever directed by King, who was previously known primarily as a documentary filmmaker.The film stars Brian Painchaud as Brian O'Connall, with a supporting cast including Douglas Junor, Patricia Hamilton, Gordon Pinsent, Helen Shaver, Chappelle Jaffe, Charmion King, Leslie Carlson and José Ferrer.

Although Painchaud received positive critical attention for his performance, it was the only film he ever made before his death in 1986.

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